Poetry 2012 / Volume 43

Ice (Zlatar, Yugoslavia, 1985) — Jim Daniels

We sit outside at the splintery picnic table
where Uncle Stefan gets hammered daily
since he lost his teaching job, his students
carrying him home drunk one last time.

Aunt Nada pours commie coke from a dusty
bottle they’ve been saving. I don’t know
what nada means in Croatian. Nothing
in Spanish. She pockets our gift
of American dollars, a magic trick in reverse.

Rain drops into our cups. Nowhere we can all sit–
six Americans and half the tiny village–
inside the tiny stucco house painted leaf green,
half nothing, the irritated rooms, leaning,
stuck with each other, the bathroom clock
ticking loud, stale seconds.

We stare at the bouldered sky. Desperate
for the rain to either stop or drown us
while the locals gamely ignore it
as they have been taught under communism
where nothing exists if you don’t acknowledge it.

Nada pours the flat, over-sweet cola,
nothing like the real thing.

*

In the cemetery, no tombstone
for Teta Anca, who died last year–
my father-in-law back in Cleveland
had wired the money for it.

We stood numb in the rain
and dropped our flowers on the bare spot,
all translation muted into shame.

*

Uncle Stefan takes our cokes,
disappears down the street, returns
with a bowl full of ice from a neighbor
with a freezer, presents it to us in a grand gesture,
half the cubes sliding onto the bare ground,
the other half, melted: ice for Americans,
the way we like it in the movies.

Nada’s bringing out cookies
mounded on a platter. The rain
plasters hair to our foreheads,
Stefan’s laugh cracks into a rasping cough.

He regales us with slobbered songs
on his sad accordion. White birds flee
from a nest under the eaves. Eggs there,
Nada shows us, like the happy ending
of an old fable.

She’ll hide the money we brought,
she tells us, but we’re not betting
on better reception on their old
black and white, not betting Stefan
won’t sniff it out, send it off on
the lit paper airplanes of alcohol.

What can we say? We can say
nothing. We drop the small chips of ice
into the sticky brown of our cups
and it disappears.

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